What's left of Albert Woodfox's life now lies in the hands of a federal appeals court in New Orleans. By the time the court hears his case on Tuesday, the 62-year-old will have spent 36 years, 2 months, and 24 days in a 6-by-9-foot cell at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. An 18,000-acre complex that still resembles the slave plantation it once was, the notorious prison, immortalized in the film Dead Man Walking, has long been considered one of the most brutal in America, a place where rape, abuse, and violence have been commonplace. With the exception of a few brief months last year, Woodfox has served nearly all of his time there in solitary confinement, out of contact with other prisoners, and locked in his cell 23 hours a day. By most estimates, he and his codefendant, Herman Wallace, have spent more time in solitary than any other inmates in US history.
Woodfox and Wallace are members of a triad known as the "Angola 3"—three prisoners who spent decades in solitary confinement after being accused of prison murders and convicted on questionable evidence. Before they were isolated from other inmates, the trio, which included a prisoner named Robert King, had organized against conditions in what was considered "the bloodiest prison in America." Their supporters believe that their activism, along with their ties to the Black Panther Party, motivated prison officials to scapegoat the inmates.*
Over the years, human rights activists worldwide have rallied around the Angola 3, pointing to them as victims of a flawed and corrupt justice system. Though King managed to win his release in 2001, after his conviction was overturned, Woodfox and Wallace haven't been so lucky. Amnesty International has called their continued isolation "cruel, inhuman, and degrading," charging that their treatment has "breached international treaties which the USA has ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture." Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has taken a keen interest in the case and traveled to Angola last spring to visit with Woodfox and Wallace. "This is the only place in North America that people have been incarcerated like this for 36 years," he told Mother Jones.
Meanwhile, the prevailing powers in Louisiana, from Angola's warden to the state's attorney general, are bent on keeping Woodfox and Wallace right where they are. The state's Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, has thus far steered clear of the controversial case. Conyers, though, who has spoken with Jindal about Woodfox and Wallace, says the governor seemed "open-minded."
For his part, Conyers is optimistic that Woodfox's fortunes, at least, could soon change. On Tuesday, Nick Trenticosta, who is one of Woodfox's lawyers, will have 20 minutes to convince the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold the decision of a district court judge in Baton Rouge, who last July overturned Woodfox's conviction for the 1972 murder of an Angola prison guard. The murder, for which Wallace was also charged, occurred while Woodfox was already serving a sentence for armed robbery. Trenticosta, a longtime Louisiana death penalty attorney who heads the New Orleans-based Center for Equal Justice, will argue that his client received inadequate representation from his court-appointed attorneys when he was retried in 1998, as well as during his original trial in 1973. Better lawyers, he'll argue, would have shown that Woodfox's conviction was quite literally bought by the state, which based its case on jailhouse informants who were rewarded for their testimony. The primary eyewitness to the murder received special privileges and the promise of a pardon. One of the corroborating witnesses was legally blind, while another was on the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine; both were subsequently granted furloughs.
Woodfox's lawyers will also make the case that the state failed to provide his previous defense attorneys with crucial information about the witnesses—ensuring that they were unable to cross-examine them effectively—and lost physical evidence, which was inconclusive at best, and possibly favorable to the defendant. (A spokeswoman for the Louisiana State Penitentiary said the prison, as a matter of policy, would not comment on an ongoing case.)
Depending on how the appeals court decides, Woodfox may get a chance at another trial, where this time he'll be represented by a team of highly skilled lawyers. If given that opportunity, Trenticosta told Mother Jones in a recent interview, he and his colleagues will go beyond just refuting the evidence that led to their client's conviction. They intend to reveal the identities of the real murderers of prison guard Brent Miller, who, Trenticosta says, are now dead. He says his team has "numerous witnesses who saw" the murder and others "who have good information." (Asked for the names of the witnesses and others with specific knowledge of the murder, Trenticosta said he would reveal their identities only if there is another trial.) Of Woodfox and Wallace, Trenticosta says, "They were targeted. They were set up." The lawyer believes the state of Louisiana is determined to prevent Woodfox from being retried in order to "cover up a coverup."
The state's case against overturning Woodfox's conviction will be argued by Kyle Duncan, a University of Mississippi law school professor who is an admirer of the jurisprudence of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. He will likely take the usual position in these types of cases, arguing that Woodfox's previous defense attorneys, despite what Trenticosta might say, had every opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses, so no new trial is warranted. But Duncan is little more than a mouthpiece; the force behind the state's appeal is Louisiana attorney general James "Buddy" Caldwell Jr. The former prosecutor, who moonlights as an Elvis impersonator, is a politically ambitious Democrat. Since his election in 2007, Caldwell has fought efforts by Woodfox and Wallace to overturn their convictions. After Woodfox's conviction was overturned last year, Caldwell declared, "We will appeal this decision to the 5th Circuit. If the ruling is upheld there I will not stop and we will take this case as high as we have to. I will retry this case myself…I oppose letting him out with every fiber of my being because this is a very dangerous man."
Caldwell shares this position with Angola's warden, Burl Cain, a devout Baptist who has a reputation for proselytizing to the inmates under his watch. Cain, who has likened the Black Panthers to the KKK, is adamant that the aging Woodfox is and always will be a menace to society by virtue of his political beliefs. He has said that Woodfox is "locked in time with that Black Panther revolutionary actions they were doing way back when…And from that, there's been no rehabilitation."
After a three-judge appelate panel hears arguments on March 3, it will be at least six weeks, and possibly many months, before it rules on the appeal. If it concurs with the district court's decision, Woodfox will be retried or released. If it overrules the lower court, his conviction will remain in place, and his defense team will have to go back to the drawing board.